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Volume 19, Number 3May/June 1968

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Discovery! The Story Of Aramco Then

Chapter 3: Beachhead

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS: On a hot August day in 1933 an American mining engineer named Karl Twitchell carefully counted out 53,000 gold sovereigns onto a table in the Netherlands Bank of Jiddah. He pushed them across to the representatives of King Ibn Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia and gravely accepted a receipt. It didn't take long, but when it was over so was the first act in the drama of Arabian oil.

The curtain had gone up on that drama many years before when a group of London financiers won control of a concession on the island of Bahrain in the Arabian Gidf and then sold the concession to the Standard Oil Company of California. For everyone concerned that sale was to have tremendous implications. Not only did it admit an American oil company to the Gulf, but it aroused the company's interest in the Saudi Arabian mainland just as the country's monarch, Ibn Sa'ud, was weighing the advisability of seeking foreign help in developing the mineral wealth of his kingdom.

During these years no one was at all certain that there was oil in Saudi Arabia. At the suggestion of his adviser Harry St. John Philby, and the American philanthropist Charles Crane, King Ibn Sa'ud had brought in Karl Twitchell to assess the possibilities and Twitchell's report had been encouraging. But there was still no evidence. Then, on June 1,1932, Socal found oil on Bahrain, decided they had better take a closer look at Saudi Arabia and dispatched land lease expert Lloyd Hamilton to work out terms.

Hamilton arrived in Jiddah February 15, 1933 and that night held his first meeting with the King's representativesthe first of many meetings that would stretch out over three and a half months. Although Socal by then had hired both Twitchell and Philby as advisers, Hamilton still had to cope with skilled negotiators, English competitors and even the shattering effects of the American depression. But at last a concession was agreed upon and Hamilton departed, leaving Twitchell behind to effect the transfer of the gold with which Socal had promised to make its first down payment. Twitchell did and 29 days laterSeptember 23, 1933Socal's first skirmishers arrived to make a beach head on the east coast of the peninsula.

From the point of view of the men who made the beachhead, what they came to do was a job like other jobs. From the perspective of history and with the map in mind, it was an assignment to challenge the most rash; seen in retrospect it has the nostalgic, almost mythic quality of an action from the age of giants.

The job was the exploration, above ground and below, of some 320,000 square miles of desert, most of it barely known, most of it casually mapped, some of it visited by Westerners only two or three times in all its history. And they were to do the job in the face of enormous difficulties: a transportation system consisting of a handful of cars supplemented by camels and donkeys; roads that were often little more than trails; and an uncertain, rudimentary network of wireless stations for communications. They were, furthermore, half a world away from their base of supplies, and with hardly a shop or store or warehouse where they could buy so much as a nail or a pair of pliers, much less the complex spare parts of a mechanized civilization.

Not the least of the difficulties was the uncompromising nature of the country itself: the crystalline basement rocks of the Red Sea coastal plain, rising into worn mountains on the border of Yemen; the long curve of westward-facing cliffs just east of those mountains; the belt of dunes linking two great sand deserts; the broken limestone of the Summan Plateau fading into flint desert along the Kuwait and Iraq borders and into the gravel plain called Abu Bahr, the "father of the sea"; the moving dunes south of Jubail, blowing along the Gulf and across the salt flats of the coast to melt into the Jafura Sands.

The concession area took in the whole eastern portion of Saudi Arabia, from the Gulf to the Dahana and from the Wadi al-'Ubayyid on the Iraq border to the mountainous southern edge of the Rub' al-Khali—an area larger than all Texas.

From their base map—the 1:1,000,000 British War Office map—and from Twitchell and Philby and the writings of Lawrence and Bertram Thomas, the men who made the beachhead knew these things in a general way; the particulars, including what lay underneath the often featureless desert, were all to be learned.

To start the job there were at first two men. A little later a third would come to open a government relations office in Jiddah. And over a period of weeks and months a few others would dribble into al-Hasa by one's and two's, handpicked for pioneering work and bringing with them elements of the absolutely indispensable equipment. When they had their full complement there would be, in al-Hasa itself, a total of 10.

Theirs was a landing touched with wonder, imminent with consequences. They came like discoverers and if they did not often stare at each other with wild surmise, being practical men with a job to do, they could not be insensible of the things around them and their capacity for wonder would not go totally untested.

When Robert P. (Bert) Miller and Schuyler B. (Krug) Henry crossed the channel from Bahrain to Jubail in Saudi Arabia they brought with them a combined total of two and half years' experience on Bahrain, a smattering of Arabic and a determination to get to work right away. But as the Saudi Arab customs launch slipped past the careened dhows on the mudflats inside the breakwater they and Karl Twitchell, who had crossed the peninsula to help them get started, saw that getting down to business was going to be a little harder than they had expected.

On shore were gathered robed throngs of people, throngs who obviously represented more than the normal population of the town. As they stepped out to be greeted by the local Amir and the soldiers who were to form their compulsory escort, they learned that several dignitaries from Jubail and Qatif, the big oasis down the coast, had come to greet them too, as well as many Bedouins from the hinterlands. All apparently were planning a big celebration of welcome.

Miller and Henry, however, had other plans and after paying the proper courtesy calls and drinking the appropriate number of cups of coffee, they spotted a Jabal to the south and learning that it was called al-Jabal al-Barri, piled into the two touring cars that Twitchell had rented from the government in Jiddah and driven across country for their use. If they had hoped to discourage the holiday spirit of the crowds they were disappointed. Everyone climbed aboard camels and white al-Hasa donkeys, and streamed after them.

For part of the 12 kilometers to Jabal al-Barri the cars served them; then the going got sandy and rough, and amid much laughter they accepted a lift from the camels that the soldiers had forehandedly brought along. They looked over Jabal al-Barri without finding anything to excite them, came dow;n again, mounted the camels and started back across the great sabkha. Suddenly the solid earth veered before their eyes, the intense light flawed and changed and unknown Arabia grinned at them—a sudden distorted grin—as the ring of the horizon boiled and floated with mirages. Around its edge, dunes and runty palmettos were stretched and warped until they looked like cliffs or forested headlands. Camels and their riders came over the rim as tall as towers. The cars parked on the flats loomed like grain elevators on the Nebraska plains and the pearling town of Jubail, which they knew had only a thousand or so people, threw up a skyline like New York's, a vision of cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces.

The geologists, a little dazed, clung to the camel saddles, tried their best to adjust comfortably to the camel's rocking ride and headed back to the town. Beyond the jut of rocks and the careened dhows, out between the muddied waves slapping the beach and the bank of dark blue sea that underlined the horizon, they could see the Gulf's own images of persistent unreality. The waves ran quartering, and along the meeting-line of green water and blue, zjalbout beating up the coast seemed to drive at a tremendous clip. They saw it racing past, but looked again in a few minutes and found it still there, and looked in an hour and found it still there, painted against its backdrop of sea and sky, entranced in its mirage of motion. They observed it curiously, not knowing then that during their Arabian experience, on the occasions when they had a minute or an hour to observe and think, they would feel as entranced and frozen in unreal motion as that jalbout beating up the coast in slow motion.

One of the first decisions Miller and Henry had to make was where to set up headquarters. It was the opinion of Muhammad 'Ali Tawil, the local customs officer and government representative, and other Saudi Arabs that Hofuf, in the great al-Hasa oasis, would make the best headquarters location. Miller and Henry had their doubts, and they could be satisfied only by a look.

Within the first week, accompanied by their guards, cooks, interpreters, drivers, mechanics and hangers-on, and carrying shovels to help them get the cars through, they explored westward as far as al-Hinnat and southward to Qatif and its great palm gardens and flowing wells. They spent a day on Tarut Island. Five days after their landing, on September 28, they were walking around among the limestone hills called Jabal Dhahran that they and Davies had seen from Bahrain. Reasonably sure that the structure had good closure, they marked this area as one worth detailed study, and named it the Dammam Dome. By the last "day of the month they were down at Hofuf, where they set up a kind of office in a house rented from the great merchant family of the Gosaibis, Bahrain agents of King Ibn Sa'ud. A few days later they drove north to al-Hinnat and closed the traverse of their first Arabian reconnaissance.

By the end of those first hot disorganized days, more things were clear than that the humpy jabals near Dammam warranted closer study. It had been made abundantly clear that al-Hasa simply wouldn't do. The flies were maddening, the palm gardens were cut by canals that bred far too many anopheles mosquitoes, and the canals had very inadequate bridges for motor traffic.

Miller chose instead Jubail, the place of their landing. It was, by comparison with Qatif and Hofuf, a cool and breezy town, and it had a fair port for the landing of supplies from Bahrain. So he kept as a branch office the Hofuf house the Gosaibis had provided, and had the Gosaibis engage him another in Jubail. It could have been much worse—an enclosed court 300 feet square, with rooms built against the inside of the wall and only one great arched gate. There was plenty of locked space for storing equipment. The roof was open: they found early that it was a good place to sleep. All the house needed was a few modern improvements, and all the two pioneers needed was reinforcement and supplies.

Reinforcement came first to Jiddah, where Bill Lenahan, a baby-faced young University of California graduate with six years of South American experience, a marvelously persuasive and mellow speaking voice, and a temper like a wildcat, arrived on October 18. His arrival caused no ripple in the lives of the party in al-Hasa, for he was 750 air miles away, an indefinite time by the Saudi telegraph, seven to ten racking days by car, more than two weeks by the fastest racing camel. But the al-Hasa pioneers felt solidly strengthened by the arrival at al-'Uqair on October 22 of a geologist named J.W. (Soak) Hoover, with a mechanic, a helper, two drivers and three Ford touring cars. Still reacting as if he had only a few days before al-Hasa would sink into the sea, Miller wasted not an hour on indoctrination or acclimatizing: he got Hoover unloaded and brought him straight to the Dammam Dome, where he and Henry set up a camp nine miles south of the village of Dammam to start the detailed study of the jabal area. They had with them two cars, not too mobile in the dune sand, and a driver and a mechanic whose information on the high-compression engine was somewhat indefinite.

As soon as the reinforcements arrived Twitchell took the two government cars and the remains of his Hijaz retinue and made his fourth and final trip across Arabia. The man whose explorations and recommendations had guided the King's decision to talk to Socal (which on November 8 created a subsidiary named California Arabian Standard Oil Company—Casoc) would end his connection with the company at the close of the month, after he had helped Bill Lenahan get established in the Bait Baghdadi in Jiddah.

Immediately after Twitchell's departure, as if to emphasize both the need of good government relations and the difficulty of maintaining them, Muhammad 'Ali Tawil, the local customs officer, got it into his head that he was obligated to collect duty on the food and supplies Miller had shipped in. Until then Tawil and the Americans had got on very well: obviously Tawil and the local Amir had strict instructions to be friendly, agreeable and helpful; as for the Americans, they were determinedly being the pleasantest people the Arabs had ever known. But on the duty problem Tawil was adamant. He read his orders that way. Miller, knowing that such duties were specifically forbidden in the Concession Agreement, refused to pay them. Away went a long, tangled, coded message to Lenahan asking him to straighten out the matter and have the Minister of Finance send the proper instructions to Tawil.

In Jubail, Tawil regularly came with his dignified white beard and requested payment of the duties. The geologists steadfastly refused. The quarters in the compound remained almost as bare as the tent camp at Dammam, without plumbing or electricity, refrigeration or fans or Flit. They ate rice and boiled sheep and dates, dates and boiled sheep and rice, and ate them with the less patience for thinking about the Stateside luxuries that lay piled up on Tawil's docks. Only the weather treated them well. Though at midday the temperatures were still in the nineties, and though they sometimes felt that they could wring water out of the air simply by closing their fists, the nights were cooler, and the shamals, which inland would be loaded with sand, came in at them in gusty rushes from the Gulf. This was what would one day be called "executive weather," the pleasantest time for visits of inspection by big brass from the States. The pioneers waited for Lenahan's reply, and ate their rice and sheep and dates, and got along.

On November 10 the beachhead expanded again. Art Brown and Tom Koch came into al-'Uqair with two 2-ton rear-wheel-drive trucks equipped with dual high-pressure tires. They brought also four Hijazi drivers whom Twitchell had taken to Bahrain for training in the Bapco shops. Then on the 21st, Hugh Burchfiel arrived, fussy, finicky, able, bald as a cue ball. He had come out from the States with a mechanic named Felix Dreyfus, but Dreyfus had burned his hand and had stayed behind on Bahrain for treatment. Early in December an engineer, Allen White, came ashore with three pickup trucks, an interpreter and a cook. All were welcome, especially White, whose seasoning in foreign oil work had begun in Venezuela, and who had been one of the Bapco pioneers on Bahrain. He had surveyed that entire concession, and was the only real Arabic scholar in Casoc's early days in Saudi Arabia. The interpreter, then only a boy, was 'Ajab Khan, who had come originally from Peshawar, now in Pakistan, and who over the ensuing years was of great service to the Company.

Meanwhile, the disagreement with Muhammad Tawil continued. Tawil came around regularly to collect the duty; Miller continued to refuse it; the canned goods and dehydrated foods that they coveted piled up in the Jubail and al-'Uqair customs houses. Finally, it came to a head when Tawil, demanding the duty which it was his job to collect, lost his temper and rose to stamp out of the room. But before he could reach the door he met a messenger, part of the Saudi telegraph system, bearing the word of Abdullah Sulaiman that the food for the geological parties was to be admitted free. The embattled geologists praised the name of Lenahan and the institution of the Jiddah office and radically altered their diet.

By Christmas time, when Miller went over to Bahrain to meet "Doc" Nomland, chief geologist from Socal headquarters, the landing party had had its period of trial and discovered some of its errors. The location of their headquarters at Jubail was confirmed when Nomland, coming back with Miller and the new mechanic, Dreyfus, took one look at Qatif's picturesque, inadequately bridged and wriggler-filled ditches. At that time Hoover, Henry and Burchfiel were working out of Jubail and Koch and Brown in the country out from Hofuf, where Allen White had charge of the sub-office. They had begun to cover ground, among them, and had learned a few things. They had discovered that the trucks, with their hard dual tires, were worthless in sand, though they could use one for limited service in Hofuf. The other was left for a while at al-'Uqair and then with some difficulty got up to Jubail after the winter rains. The usefulness of these trucks was more inspirational than practical. The experience of digging and brushing and pushing them out of sand and sabkha was good for the character; it was also good for the imagination. It demonstrated comprehensively and at once the need for all-wheel drive and low-pressure tires in this country where all work for a good many years would be off-road work. This was a challenge that would beget a response, a necessity that w:ould be the mother of invention, and some of the pioneers in al-Hasa would be pioneers also in the development of low-pressure flotation of heavy equipment. For the moment, they cursed their trucks and found little use for them. The touring cars did get around, though they were often stuck and though they showed a pernicious habit of breaking springs and front cross-members.

As for Arab-American relations, diplomats might have learned from either side. Except for the difficulty with Tawil about the duty on food, there had been nothing approximating an incident. The Americans were energetic and enthusiastic, knew their geology and went about their work as if they were in Colorado. The Amir of Jubail, the qadi, the guides, the soldiers, were friendly. Cautiously, visitors and residents explored each other's peculiarities. It was surprising to both sides to find that Arabs and Americans laughed in the same places; it was at first a possible irritation and later a basis for respect when the Americans found Saudi Arabs tough, independent, and disinclined to give in in an argument, and the Saudis found Americans more willing to fraternize than the British.

Still, there were minor sources of friction. The soldiers supplied by the Amir of al-Hasa, Abdullah ibn Jiluwi, Ibn Sa'ud's first cousin once removed and old battle companion, were well-behaved enough, but there were 16 of them to each field party, far too many, the Americans thought, simply to demonstrate to the Bedouins that the foreigners traveled under the protection of Ibn Sa'ud. Their supplies and gear burdened a dozen camels, and the flocks of animals that were necessary for their support seemed to draw after them all the flies in Arabia. Since the trucks had proved useless in cross-country work, all camp luggage had to come by camel, and though a good pack camel could take 400 pounds, it required many such camels to keep two geologists and their keepers and protectors in the field. The result was they were all but immobilized by the size of their supporting parties and the amount of work done was very much less than the geologists, left to themselves, could have done alone.

There was, however, no apparent way of cutting down, for not only did the Government insist that the soldiers were necessary for their protection, but the Arabs were constitutionally and culturally inhibited from combining jobs. A driver drove, a mechanic repaired, a camel driver tended the camels, a cook would not be caught dead doing a houseboy's job of serving, a houseboy would quit before he would remove a cook's kettle from the fire. As a result, whenever any two geologists took off into the desert, there went with them an interpreter, a cook, a cook's helper, a houseboy, a mechanic, a mechanic's helper, a driver, anywhere from 15 to 30 soldiers, and four camel drivers. Their equipment would include a Ford touring car, a half-ton pickup, a minimum of 20 riding camels, and a dozen big baggage camels. On these last would be piled three 10 x 20 tents of goat hair, with grass matting for the floors, a 10 x 12 silk tent, collapsible tables, chairs, cots, food, cooking utensils, gasoline stoves and lamps, and (if it hadn't already been sent out on a supplementary camel train) gasoline in five-gallon cans.

Also aboard somewhere or set up for use en route would be a chronometer, a transit, sketchboards of a type designed by Miller allowing use of continuous rolls of sketching paper, three Brunton compasses, drafting equipment, four one-gallon water cans, six ghirbas or waterskins holding from six to ten gallons each, four oversized waterbags, and an assortment of tools and spare motor parts and spare tires and spare front springs. No radios: those didn't come along until the spring of 1934. No geological party went into any area without first notifying the government representative, who notified the Ministry of Finance, which then issued permission and assigned guards and soldiers. To get such an outfit going was like starting a military offensive.

Nevertheless they were beginning to know their job—then the preliminary job of geological reconnaissance—and were beginning to get it done. They had already discovered that they desperately needed an airplane, but also that it would be some time before a plane could be shipped out to them. So, by car and camel, they worked doggedly on.

Hoover and Henry, who had been detailing the Dammam Dome, had gone over to join Burchfiel, mapping the country west of Jubail as far as al Haba, and down the coast to Qatif. Brown and Koch were still working out of their camp at 'Arai'ra, between Hofuf and Hinnat. Allen White was still in the Hofuf office, keeping Brown and Koch in touch with the rest of the parties and sending them the things they needed in the way of supplies. And Doc Nomland, having given his blessing to all those arrangements, was driving to Jiddah to decide if Socal would compete for another concession in the Hijaz. The car gave out before he arrived and Lenahan and the Government had to sent out rescuers to bring him in. He went on to the Northern Hijaz, found the rock all igneous and recommended that Socal forget it.

If the men who made the beachhead had thought to add up the hours they worked, they would have found themselves doing time and a half or double time, but they seldom thought of the hours. If the weather was good, they worked, lining themselves out across the low sand ridges and the dunes; and with Brunton compass and speedometer they made great traverses, mapping as they went and checking the traverses with Brunton triangulation and occasional astronomical fixes. It wasn't exactly mapping of a geodetic accuracy, but it was far and away the most accurate mapping that had ever been done in Arabia, and for their immediate purposes it was quite accurate enough.

In bad weather, when shamals blew the whole world into a gritty red-brown darkness, or heat waves jiggled the jabals and clanged in the brainpan like gongs, or when, as it did in December and January, the wind grew raw and icy, they stayed in their tents, inked in the field pencil work on the maps and slept. Once in a while they took part of a day and went gazelle hunting with the soldiers. But most days they were in the field all day and at their drafting boards half the night, and up at five for another run and slowly, the unrelieved and featureless country began to take shape on their rolls of sketch paper, more real there than it sometimes seemed in the heat dance of noon or with the shadowless dusk of a sandstorm sweeping across it.

In spite of constant and acute discomforts, this was a contented group of men by and large. They grew mighty beards, competitively, and horsed around and tried their muscles as young men will, and mourned, without complete conviction, the lost company of ladies and the drink that used to cheer a glum time of day. They watched carefully to avoid friction with their Arab helpers, and did their level best to be charitable when some Arab customs jarred their sense of logic. They practiced their Arabic on children and soldiers and houseboys and visitors from the towns, drank pots of sweet tea and cardamom-flavored coffee and learned not to use the left hand in eating. Finding Arabs like other people elsewhere, they learned to like some of them better than others, and they made some progress toward knowing themselves and the country in which they worked.

These were the days, it seemed later, when Saudi Arabia's astonishing push toward modernization began, the days when a revolution of things began in eastern Saudi Arabia. For whatever they may think of the nations which produce and possess them, whatever distaste they have for their beliefs, their dress and their politics, no people in history has been able to resist for half an hour the things that people like this small contingent of geologists bring with them. The Saudis were no different. However odd they found these newcomers among them, the things this crowd of tinkerers, mechanics and gadgeteers brought with them, imported later or ingeniously improvised, were irresistible.

Shortly after the first supplies began to arrive, a boy who had been hired to supply the Casoc compound with water ran into a very odd situation. He emptied the usual number of ghirbas of water into a 55-gallon drum at the side of the house, only to see it vanish. He inspected the drum for a leak, shook his head and brought more water. Again he looked in. Again it had vanished. It wasn't until he had spent two hours pouring water in that the level of water reached the top of the drum, at which point he wrapped his ghutra across the lower part of his face and hastened uneasily away. What he didn't know was that the tinkerers and gadgeteers club had spent an hour or two installing a huge indoor tank and hooking it up to the drum outside.

Such improvisation was just the beginning. When, in the spring of 1934, a shipload of tools, nuts, bolts, wrenches, dies, pipes, fittings, wire, insulators and other industrial bric-a-brac cascaded off a supply ship, the tinkerers and gadgeteers club really went to work. They installed showers fed by gravity from the roof, modernized the mud-brick privy with a combination of lime and Flit guns and, with a hundred yards of fabric screen that some foresighted individual had ordered, screened off their building from the ever-present swarms of flies.

One of the major improvements in their lives came about with the construction of a still that could produce several gallons of distilled water a day. That innovation, some of them insisted later, saved at least the sanity and possibly the lives of the hypochondriacs who tasted water the way the Borgias tasted wine. And if they feared, as some did, that distilled water would not replace the minerals they lost by evaporation, they could judiciously mix it with well water until the flavor and saline content suited them. They had as many formulas for drinking water as Americans at home have for martinis.

For many Arabs the most fascinating innovations were the two 32-volt, 3,000-watt Kohler generators. Many Arabs had seen electricity on Bahrain, of course, but the less sophisticated were quite startled when the little glass balls hanging from the ceilings suddenly lighted up one night. A few may have suspected the work of jinns, but most noticed that the wires from the little balls led into the walls and out to a power panel of brass knobs and handles of black wood and on to the gasoline engines in the compound. They noticed too that along with the light bulbs there appeared on window sills in the dining room and at various spots in the living quarters, and even up on the roof where the Americans were sleeping, certain small instruments with spinning blades inside a wire frame. At a signal they began to turn with a humming noise, then disappeared in a blur. It didn't take them long to learn that it was dangerous to poke their fingers behind the wire and that it was pleasant to sit in front of the current of cool air on a hot day.

For the tinkerers' society the photo lab was a major challenge. The aerial films that would be used when the Company's airplane arrived were 10 inches wide and 100 feet long; there were no trained helpers; the water came in lukewarm even from the oversized waterbags where they cooled it by evaporation. And the lab was very dark and hot and oppressive. After a time, in the outside wall of the darkroom there appeared a loop of six-inch pipe like a loop of gut from a sheep's opened belly, and this fitted into two five-gallon gasoline tins, one on top of another, which had been stuffed with wool made from fibers of glass. Somewhere within these cans or inside the loop of pipe or inside the lab was a fan, and those who worked in the darkroom after that reported that even in a sandstorm the air which blew from the end of the pipe was clean and almost cool.

All this made an impression in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. For when they had turned on the fans, shot down the flies with their Flit guns, screened the windows, turned on the lights and spread oilcloth across their tables, they began to entertain. And when the Amir came and the ra'is al-baladiyah or mayor came, and the qadi, and dignitaries such as Muhammad Tawil, Muhammad Gosaibi of the great merchant family, and Arif Effendi, chief of the local Saudi police, it was not long before they remarked on the value of these comforts and casually inquired where they might obtain some of the same. Long before anyone knew the phrase, a revolution of rising expectations had begun. Saudi Arabia would never be the same.


This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the May/June 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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